PBS special voices Sinatra's impact


March 01, 1991|By Michael Hill

Watching a PBS special on Frank Sinatra makes you realize it's impossible to imagine what popular singing was like before ,, Sinatra came along.

It's title, "Frank Sinatra: The Voice of Our Time," effectively sums it up. Hearing him sing all sorts of songs in this 65-minute special demonstrates that Sinatra's style has rippled through the vocal chords of most singers who have come to us over the radio, records, tapes and CDs in the 50 years since he first became popular.

Sinatra was part of a group -- Bing Crosby and Mel Torme, who hosts this show, are two classmates -- who took jazz styling from smokey bars and put it up on the brightly lit bandstand, using the technology of the microphone to strip away theatrical pretension and assume a conversational intimacy.

But Sinatra did something else. His voice is at once rough and smooth, clear and muddy, romantic and realistic, deep and rich and yet somehow thin and fragile. It demands your attention not by banging on your eardrums, but by getting under your skin.

"The Voice of Our Time," which will be on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock tomorrow night, is no muck-raking biography, although with Sinatra you don't have to rake that deep to find a bit of muck. Though there is a brief mention of a run-in or two with the press, it paints its portrait in purely admirable colors, ending with the singer's 50th birthday, treated as a virtual national holiday, in 1965.

Since it's a TV show, it emphasizes the visuals, and there were plenty of them, early music videos of some of Sinatra's hits of the '40s, newsreels of the days of bobby-soxer craze, film after film featuring plenty of singing and some memorable acting over the decades, and, perhaps most importantly to this documentary, a host of television appearances in the early '50s.

Many of these were in Sinatra's tough years, when it was still not clear if he would survive the transition from teen fave to adult star.

But Sinatra stayed the course. "From Here to Eternity" resurrected his image, and his voice and talent, both as a singer and actor, did the rest. The skinny singer of the '40s became the cool crooner of the '50s and, eventually, a pensive patrician in the '60s, bringing America's World War II generation through its own difficult transitions, truly the voice of its time.

'The Summer My Father Grew Up'

Sunday night's NBC movie "The Summer My Father Grew Up" has about 30 minutes or so of extraordinarily good scenes. Unfortunately to watch them, you have to see the rest of this two-hour movie that will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock.

John Ritter leads a top-notch cast in this film about the long-felt aftershocks of divorce. He's Paul, a blue-jeans-wearing West Coast doctor who's the dad to an 11-year-old. Paul walked out on what he saw as an increasingly confining marriage a couple of years ago into the arms of Chandelle, played by Karen Young, the woman he had been seeing on the side.

Margaret Whitton, an extraordinary and underrated actress, plays the spurned wife Naomi, who has recently remarried to Louie, played by Joe Spano of "Hill Street Blues" fame. And then there's the kid, Timmy, played with exceptional grace by a young actor named Matthew Lawrence.

The two hours all take place in one day, the day when Timmy is hTC supposed to come from his mother's home in New York to spend the summer with his father in San Diego. He shows up all right, but his mother and her new husband are along. And he's planning to spend the summer with them in Paris instead.

In between a tourist-agency-level tour of the highlights of San Diego and some tortured, slow-to-pay-off contrivances, Paul and Naomi come to terms with their deep bitterness, understanding the harm it is doing Timmy and themselves.

What is admirable about "The Summer My Father Grew Up" is that it in no way paints a rosy-colored, we-can-all-be-friends picture of divorce. There's a realization that such splits are often the product of adults thinking more of themselves than of children, and that they leaves scars that never go away.

The problem might be that this was originally a play, entitled "Tooth of the Lion," and was adopted for the screen by the playwright Sandra Jennings. It retains a theatrical, stagey feel and a pace that might suit those who have bought a ticket and are held in a dark room, but will cause most TV viewers to get restless and impatient.

"The Summer My Father Grew Up" * * An 11-year-old boy's coast-to-coast trip between his divorced parents turns out to be a journey of discovery for everyone involved in this domestic drama.

CAST: John Ritter, Margaret Whitton

TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.


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